When magic is feared, mages must learn to fight for themselves in this powerful sequel to the standout epic fantasy Mageborn by Stephen Aryan.
The piercing scream was so loud that it rattled the windows of the tavern. Garvey ignored it but Phelon flinched and would’ve run if he hadn’t been tied to his chair.
Garvey tore the heel of bread in two and dragged half of it through the thick beef gravy on his plate. The stories about the chef at the Bronze Tiger had not been exaggerations. The food was delicious.
“It was definitely worth the trip,” said Garvey, gesturing towards Phelon sitting opposite. He watched as the Mayor tested his bonds again but the knots were tight. His wrists were already red and chafed from his useless struggles. He’d been frantic when the screaming had started but had calmed down now. “The spices are making my tongue tingle.”
“You won’t get away with this,” said Phelon.
Garvey chuckled and gestured at the room around them. “Really? And who is going to stop me? You?” The Mayor stayed silent as Garvey finished the rest of his food, savouring each mouthful. Even the ale was good. Dark and rich with a hint of smoke, making it a perfect match for the meat. It was made in the small brewery at the far end of the village beside the river.
If not for the famous chef no one would ever visit Garrion’s Folly. It was just too small and remote. Not even the bizarre half-finished bridge that led nowhere was interesting enough to attract many visitors. A handful of academics came by every few years but it didn’t change life in the village. Over the years trees had grown up around the ruin, hiding it beneath their canopy, but for some unknown reason no lichen grew on the black stones. Despite their age they were still as hard as granite. Yesterday he’d quizzed a few of the locals about it, but not even the oldest crone had any real insight into who had built it or why. But everyone had a favourite story.
“What’s your theory about the bridge?” asked Garvey, swirling the last of the ale around the bottom of his mug. He was tempted to get a refill before leaving. After all, he wouldn’t be coming back this way again. It was unlikely that he’d be a welcome return visitor to Garrion’s Folly.
At first he thought the Mayor wouldn’t answer but with little else to do except sulk in silence he finally relented. “I think it was done as part of a wager that someone lost. There are other romantic stories about it being done for love, but I think they’re nonsense. My grandpa told me a story once, but it sounded like fantasy to me.”
Garvey shrugged. “I’d still like to hear it,” he said, moving towards the bar to get himself another drink. Phelon watched Garvey with a sour twist to his mouth as he navigated across the room, stepping over obstacles. Phelon waited until he’d refilled his mug and sat down again before speaking.
“The bridge was part of an ancient doorway.”
Garvey raised an eyebrow. “A door to where?”
Phelon shrugged. “My grandpa didn’t know that part. He just said it led elsewhere. He believed a Sorcerer built it and that the other half of the bridge is on the other side of the doorway, in some other place. I told you it was ridiculous.”
Garvey grunted noncommittally. He ran a hand through eh, his beard as he pondered the Mayor’s words. He’d studied the bridge yesterday, noting the lack of decay and the way animals avoided getting too close. In other parts of the forest he could hear birdsong, but here they’d watched him in silence from the branches of surrounding trees as he’d paced around the ruin. It had more than a few things in common with the Red Tower. Phelon thought his grandfather’s story was just idle fantasy but to Garvey it seemed the most likely explanation. The two questions he kept coming back to were, who had built it and where did it lead?
For all of the Red Tower’s accomplishments with magic in the last two centuries Garvey sometimes felt as if he was a child trying to learn how to read and write. The Grey Councils of old, those who had built the tower itself, had known so much more. Some of their secrets had been written down and were locked up inside the tower library, but unravelling even one ancient and forgotten Talent could take a lifetime of study. There simply weren’t enough mages with sufficient skill. Today there were only a handful of magic users alive who could call themselves Sorcerers and he knew they were poor imitations of the originals.
The bridge was yet another reminder of how much they still had to unravel and yet events conspired to prevent them from gaining more knowledge. In other circumstances a mage could spend their entire life in Garrion’s Folly, studying the bridge and trying to unlock its ancient secrets. There were times when such a quiet life was enormously appealing to him. But it was far too late for that.
“If only you’d been more welcoming,” muttered Garvey, gulping down his ale and savouring the rich smoky taste. “All of this unpleasantness could’ve been avoided.”
“You’re a wanted murderer. I could not stand idly by.”
“Yes, you could. You could have said nothing. All I wanted to do was eat a meal in peace and then I would’ve left. Was it worth it?” asked Garvey, gesturing at the room around him. “Did you think you were being brave? Or perhaps it was pride?”
“You will be punished for your wicked deeds,” said Phelon with the confidence of a true believer.
“By whom?” asked Garvey, folding his arms and sitting back on his chair.
“The gods. The Maker or the Holy Mother will strike you down.”
Garvey held his arms towards the ceiling. “I’m here,” he shouted. “I’m ready for my divine punishment.”
Phelon was appalled. “You dare mock the gods?”
“Strike me down!” shouted Garvey, rattling the rafters.
Silence greeted him. He waited for divine retribution but nothing happened. No bolt of lightning. No clutching pain in his chest. No everlasting fire hot enough to melt his bones like candle wax. After a while he lowered his arms.
“I’m not worried about your gods. If they even exist, they just don’t care about us any more.”
The front door of the Bronze Tiger banged open and a man stumbled in. He was bleeding from his scalp, painting half his face bright red. There was more blood on his shirt and he had a distinct limp on the right side. His left arm was bent at a peculiar angle but the right held a dagger.
With a sigh Garvey raised one hand towards the intruder, embraced the Source and made a twisting motion. The man’s neck snapped, his head turning to look behind him into the street. With a strangled choke he dropped to his knees and collapsed onto the floor. A final breath wheezed out between his swollen lips and a deafening silence filled the tavern.
Outside smoke and ash drifted past the open doorway, bringing with it the smell of burning wood and charred meat. eh, More bodies littered the street, bruised, bloody and silent. There were men, women and children. A stray dog trotted past, doing its best to escape the chaos before it too was struck down.
There were no more screams. That meant it was nearly time to be moving on.
Tahira came into the tavern, her grinning face smeared with ash.
“It’s almost done. Most of the buildings have been torn down,” she reported, pleased with herself. She had quite the temper but he’d learned it could be controlled if she was occasionally given free rein, like today.
“Good. And the people?” he asked.
“A few fought back but they’re dead. We’re finishing off the last ones.”
“And our people?”
Tahira grimaced. “Nillim didn’t listen to your orders and rushed in. He caught an arrow in the neck. Everyone else is unharmed.”
Garvey waved it away. “No great loss. He was an idiot. Did any of the villagers try to run?”
“A few, but we brought them down. No one escaped.”
“We have enough for everyone now. The stables here were surprisingly well stocked.”
“Well, at least something good came out of our visit,” said Garvey. “Tell the others to take as much food as they can carry from the storeroom.”
Phelon looked as if he wanted to curse them, or perhaps weep for his fallen friends and neighbours. Instead he remained silent and stony- faced. He watched Garvey’s students troop into the back of the tavern and carry out sacks of food taken from the kitchen. It might be a few days before they stopped off at another village and it would make a nice change if they didn’t have to forage for their meals.
“It seems as if our time is up,” said Garvey, getting to his feet.
“You will pay.”
“Think on this, Phelon. You’re the Mayor of this village. The others listen to you. They would’ve followed your lead if you’d told them not to fight. So their deaths are on your hands. You did this, not me.”
Garvey glanced around the tavern one last time, staring at the dead faces of the other patrons in the room. Most of them had died at their tables, although one or two had tumbled to the floor. The owner was dead, his body slumped forward over the bar, and in the kitchen the chef lay dead beside his famous creations. The owner’s wife had fallen against a wall and seemed to be asleep, her head resting on her chest. The only sign of her death was a small trickle of dried blood from one nostril. None of the others bore any visible wounds. Their deaths had been quick if not entirely painless.
While the Mayor shouted curses at his back Garvey stepped over villagers’ dead bodies and joined his followers waiting for him in the street. A month ago they had been children idly daydreaming in classrooms. They had been students seeking knowledge and the ability to control their burgeoning magic. Now they were refugees from the Red Tower and day by day were transforming into something else. A month of constantly being on the move, pursued by enemies, had stripped away most of the fat. Those who remained were lean, scarred from their experience and willing to do whatever was necessary to survive. Each of them carried a weapon on their hip and they all understood the importance of steel, even for those with magic. A few had tried to give the group a name, but he’d stopped that straightaway. This was not a game for children and they were eh, not folk heroes. It was a fight for their lives and their existence as mages.
“Step back,” warned Garvey, gesturing at Tahira. She and the others dismounted and led their horses further down what remained of the main street. On either side of the tavern the buildings had been smashed to pieces until nothing remained except a few broken stones. Every beam of wood had been shattered. Every window ripped apart. Every door and floorboard crushed into kindling. Blood was liberally splashed among the ruins from those too slow to escape the buildings when they collapsed. It wouldn’t have mattered. Anyone who made it outside had been killed in the street. Garvey could see dozens of bodies with various wounds from where he was standing. Over a hundred people had lived in Garrion’s Folly when they’d first arrived.
The rest of the village was the same. The houses, the mill, the temple and the village hall were all gone. Even the brewery beside the river was nothing more than a pile of tumbled stone. Only the Bronze Tiger remained, although without its famous chef it too would quickly be forgotten. As Garvey drew power from the Source he heard Mayor Phelon screaming from inside, cursing him to damnation for all time.
Reaching deep into the ground beneath the tavern he drove tendrils of his will, shattering buried stone and gouging at the earth. At the same time he focused on all of the tiny fissures in the stone walls, pulling them wider until they ran wild like cracks on a broken pane of glass. With a rumble that shook the earth beneath his feet, the walls of the tavern collapsed inwards while the building sank into the fissure. A huge cloud of dust rose up in the sky as the stones fell and the roof broke apart. The sound was deafening, startling birds from the trees, which swayed in the sudden wind from the building’s collapse. Slowly the dust cleared and all that remained of the tavern was a few rocks and roof tiles poking out of the ground.
A profound and deep silence returned, enveloping the area. Somewhere nearby a small bird chirped. In time the forest would reclaim the village until it became nothing more than a few piles of mossy rubble. But for now it would serve as another stark reminder for those who thought mages could be eradicated like a disease.
Garvey mounted up and looked around at what had once been Garrion’s Folly.
“Let’s hope the next place we visit is more hospitable,” he said to the others.
“There’s a farm a few hours’ ride to the west. We could be there before dark,” suggested Tahira.
He considered it but shook his head. “We’re not going to run and cower in the countryside like common bandits. All we did was defend ourselves.”
“There’s another village a couple of days’ ride to the east,” said Tahira.
“I think we should head north,” said Garvey. “I could do with a bath, clean sheets and somewhere a bit less rustic.”
They all knew what he was suggesting. The border wasn’t too far away. If they carried on north the villages would soon give way to towns and then a city in Zecorria. It was more than a little reckless. It was also the last thing they would expect him to do.
“Let’s see if they’re kinder to strangers in the north,” said Garvey, nudging his horse forward.
The others followed in his wake, leaving behind a village full of dead bodies.